Students work on a pottery project at ElevArte in Pilsen
  • Bianca Betancourt
  • Students work on a pottery project at ElevArte in Pilsen

The steps leading up to Dvorak Park’s community center on Cullerton Street are chalked with large-scale images of sugar skulls, or calaveras in Spanish. It’s in Pilsen, after all, and although the neighborhood’s changed a lot during the past several years, it’s still a Mexican neighborhood at its heart.

Inside the community center you’ll find the team of ElevArte Studio, a creative youth outreach organization that has called Pilsen home for the past 36 years. Their CPS-standardized programs get students involved in and out of the classroom, through initiatives like Art of Change, which blends sculpture and lessons about earth science. They also have a circus-inspired drama class that incorporates lessons about astronomy and space.

The organization’s daily goal is to educate the young people of Pilsen through the arts. Its overarching goal is the same as it was three decades ago: to preserve and promote the culture of their community. But bolstering the neighborhood’s rich Mexican roots can be a double-edged sword, according to executive director Giselle Mercier. “[Art] brings that connection to your cultural past but it also, because it’s culture, and it’s in the moment and it’s present, with that comes the curiosity of other individuals that may want to experience what ‘real’ Mexican culture might be,” says Mercier. “When that happens we can’t help but recognize that we’re adding to the problem of gentrification.”

Mention of gentrification instantly changes the mood in the room. It’s an issue, Mercier believes, that’s ignored by the mainstream media because no one wants to admit their role in it.

“People don’t want to be inconvenienced with knowing they contributed [to gentrification],” said Thelma Uranga, ElevArte’s mentorship coordinator and current teaching artist. Mercier adds, “The media struggles [with gentrification] the same way we’re struggling with how we elect our public officials. It’s based on how many contributions they get by wealthy people—the same way the media struggles with creating a true voice to what communities might be suffering or the problems that those communities have.”

As rents have risen and landlords have become increasingly eager to accommodate students and artists with deeper pockets, Pilsen has seen a rapid rise of new businesses and new neighbors, while longtime residents have gotten lost amid the community’s transformation.

“Chicago was not what it is today 30 years ago when I first came here from Panama,” said Mercier. “It has taken us 30 years to place ourselves as one of the tourism capitals of the United States and we’re proud of that! We’re proud that we sell this tourism through neighborhoods, but I’m also saddened by that. Why? Because why do you have to segregate into different neighborhoods in order to get the flavor of a great city?”

Chicago’s entrenched economic segregation has no doubt contributed to youth violence and the proliferation of gangs. The peer mentorship program Each One/Reach One, in which students are given individual guidance as they near adulthood, is part of ElevArte’s counteractive approach. For Carlos Zamora, 16, an ElevArte participant since July 2014, his mentorship experience provided for him something he couldn’t get at home: a father figure.

“I’ve been the man of my house since I was six months old,” said Zamora. “My dad was never really around and my brother left as soon as he turned 18.” His assigned mentor, however, has filled the role-model void and helped prepare him for his future; Zamora plans to go to college and become a lawyer.

“ElevArte made me appreciate things—that you have to work for everything that you do and you can’t just start something and not finish it. It teaches you responsibility,” he says.

Zamora plans to return the favor and become an ElevArte mentor himself after he finishes high school.

“We feel very proud that it was in part thanks to our giving [ElevArte] new breath and life, now the whole community of Pilsen is beginning to wake up,” said Mercier. “That for us is ultimately what we want and we need to make sure we offer the opportunity for all of [culture and] its manifestations to happen.”